Urban indigenous development alternatives in Bolivia and Brazil

For Insight Magazine, Dr Philipp Horn introduces two new projects that focus on urban indigenous peoples and possibilities for more racially just and sustainable urban futures.

Wall art of indigenous culture

Indigenous peoples are often portrayed as living in isolated rural areas, in pristine natural settings. Yet, rural indigenous peoples are increasingly affected by territorial displacement, the urbanisation of their lands, and are moving from the countryside to cities. 40% of the world’s indigenous population already lived in cities in 2010, with numbers set to rise to more than 60% by 2025.

Urbanisation produces a significant generational divide within indigenous peoples. For example, in Latin America 80% of indigenous peoples residing in the countryside are above age 60, while 44% of indigenous peoples in cities are aged under 25. Urbanisation rarely leads to improvements in living conditions as indigenous peoples, are often trapped in poverty and excluded from the education and employment opportunities available in cities. Urban indigenous youth and women remain excluded from development interventions targeting indigenous peoples as these remain rural in focus, and from participation in indigenous movements which are characterised by patriarchal power dynamics.

Despite this, urban indigenous peoples should not be seen as passive victims, rather they are active agents of change who confront uneven power relations within their own communities and challenge processes of uneven development to imagine and create alternative futures. Yet, little is known on what such alternatives entail and how they could reconfigure urban development and planning practice.

Two recently awarded projects within the department seek to fill these gaps. The first is entitled ‘Decolonial development alternatives: A counter-cartography of traditional peoples’ urban territories in Para and Minas Gerais, Brasil’ and is funded through the University of Sheffield’s QR GCRF Sustainable Partnership scheme. For this project, which runs from January 2020 until July 2021, a team of researchers from the University of Sheffield, the Universidade Federal do Para, and the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais work collaboratively with indigenous groups from six different urban areas to compare how indigenous peoples shape, imagine and collaboratively manage urban space.

The project deploys an innovative counter-cartography method to make visible traditional people’s representations of space and related urban interventions. In doing so, it seeks to generate novel understandings on innovative models for sustainable urban interventions, evoking alternative pathways towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The second project is an ESRC New Investigator project entitled ‘Indigenous Development Alternatives: An urban youth perspective from Bolivia’. Commencing in October 2020, it will examine the dynamic interactions of urbanization, youth activism and indigenous development alternatives. The project will explore the driving forces contributing to the urbanization of indigenous peoples in distinct settings such as the city of El Alto, peri-urban neighbourhoods in Sucre and Santa Cruz, and the urbanising countryside of Amazonia.

Through collaborative work with indigenous youth activists, the project will provide detailed accounts on the lived realities of indigenous youth in these four urban settings. It will investigate different yet interconnected examples of youth activism which seek to promote pathways for alternatives to urban development, centring around a variety of topics such as racial justice, decolonisation, gender equality, and intercultural approaches to land management, housing, governance and sustainable business models. In doing so, the project will highlight pathways for the promotion of more inclusive and just urban societies in which no person, regardless of ethnic background, age, gender or location of residence, is left behind.